What do we think of March?
I'm lukewarm on the month, myself. February, I realize, is for many the dregs, rock bottom of the winter blech barrel. I get that. I feel the same way about July.
But by March, it gets a little funny.
For one thing, March is when winter divides us, North from South, inland from edgeland. By March, in Seattle, there are daffodils to speak of, and yolk yellow forsythia, already come and gone, and the possibility, if not the reality, of peas. Rain boots and bumbershoots replace cold weather gear, and the (often unrequited) hope for the white stuff.
We landed four inches, yesterday. School was cancelled. We won't be planting peas, anytime soon.
You know I'm all over inches and igloos, and you probably hear my happy dance from there. But by now, such splendor's the exception, not the rule, and more than a little melancholy for it. Winter has entered its epilogue, the thrill of those early chapters behind us.
Any snow that falls now inevitably brings thoughts not of firsts, but of lasts. Lasts are wistful.
Mostly, March snow's a half-hearted thing. Yesterday's was damp, heavy, and by today, halfway to gone. It snowed all last week. Accumulation: Zero. It vanishes, on the way down. It's a different snow species going forward, flyaway stuff, with no plans to stick around.
The season itself seems spent. But the finish line's a long way off, yet.
By March, in Ohio, Winter starts to wane. It does not follow that Spring kicks in. Sun happens, March through May, in small, non-contiguous, biggering bursts. But it will be two months, anyway, before Spring is here to stay.
April is, after all, no stranger to snow.
And so, dressers bulge with three seasons of clothing. Shoes multiply, snow boots, rain boots, flip flops. The coat closet teeters between clutter and chaos. Our first week in school, our first year here, it was 7° Monday morning, 70° Friday afternoon.
A spread of sixty-one degrees. Five days. Same week. First week of March.
It's as if March, and its doppelgänger, April, can't decide which way to go. Winter, Spring? Spring, Winter? Eenie meenie miney mo...
(We discussed how best to address this, the other day, and decided these next months deserve their own season. A fifth, transitional, in-between season. Wing? Wring? Maybe Sprinter... To, you know, get us through quicker.)
And I think that's the thing that gets me about March. I'll mourn Winter when it goes, welcome Spring when it lands, but where we are now is a no-man's land. March waffles, equivocates, hems and haws. It's ambiguous at best. I am not. At my best, around ambiguous, that is.
So it's hard to explain why it is that I've dodged this minestrone for months.
Partly, I point to the fact that it's one of those fluid recipes, wide open to interpretation and the contents of your crisper. But we've covered that, now. Improvise. Innovate. Check.
Also, it's a dog. Relentlessly unattractive. Even in person. I still ate thirty quarts. (I know. I couldn't believe it, either. I just double-checked my pots. I've made more like forty. But I did relent, and share a few bowls, so let's go with thirty-plus, and call it conservative.)
Mostly, though, I'm still blinking in disbelief that minestrone could be considered edible, much less greed-inducing. Prior to this fall, my minestrone encounters all came from crowd-friendly faux-talian restaurants. The sort where you order not entrées but "dinners". The sort where you get free bread/salad/soup/coffee/ice cream/refills. Laugh if you will, but I've a soft spot for this sort. For everything, that is, save the strident red sludge with tinned potatoes, khaki green beans, and that rarified terroir that comes only from three days on a steam table.
Apparently, that was not minestrone.
Apparently, if the fine women of River Cafe are to believed, minestrone is actually an exaltation of vegetables. It's a careful building up of flavors, layer upon well-considered layer. It requires a bit of work, and a bit of time, as ten pounds of vegetables don't chop themselves. But it is good, deeply pleasing work, as the chopping and stirring and layering dovetail like an anonymous 19th century oak desk. Perfectly. Which translates pretty much directly to the spoon.
But I'm getting ahead of myself...
This soup is Judy Rogers' and Rose Gray's Winter Minestrone, and it is a first-class keeper. Maybe that's redundant, since pretty much anything Rogers-Gray is, in my experience, a first-class keeper. Still, there are several small, brilliant steps in this recipe that do a real number on ordinary old veg. It is based on soffritto, that dense, intense, slow-cooked slurry of aromatics that go just shy of caramelized, anything but shy in flavor. This slow dance is key, and totally unhip, when tinned broth, beans, and greens equal soup in ten. I do that soup. I like that soup. This isn't that soup. And it shows. Save this one for a weekend morning, because thirty minutes is almost a cheater's soffritto, and forty-five minutes, not a moment too long.
To this heady sludge, you add things in quantities that may raise eyebrows, and will demand seconds. A full bunch of parsley, stems and leaves, both. Heads of garlic. Heads. Plural. Swiss chard ribs, tinned tomatoes. And then, again, chop, stir, chop, stir, let the magic unfold in slo-mo. Because caramelized tomatoes? So, so not strident.
Almost there. In go your six pounds of slivered greens (you read that right), your mountain of diced roots, a few quarts of water. I add parmesan rinds, as I love their umami, and a small throw of kielbasa, for my small sausage fiends. Both add something. Both are unecessary. That soffritto brings flavor to spare.
Then, simmer. Half an hour, give or take. Add tender veg at the end, if you wish. Beans—I like chickpeas—no matter what. Season well, with the same slow attention you've given all along. Because an undersalted soup is a television on mute, but add just enough, and in that moment, each vegetable becomes eloquent, articulate, witty.
One last note about those vegetables: they're all my addition, and I adore them. Gray and Rogers call this one Winter Minestrone, and theirs is a soup of beans and greens. But I made my first batch late last fall, as we were readying for two days in the hills, and my fridge and garden were both bursting. These pictures all date to that time; this minestrone's carried me through every month, since. From fall's last zucchini to late winter's storage veg, it has flattered every thing I've thrown at it. Indeed, while peeling roots for last week's pot, I went a little panicky over their impending loss. Hold up, I scolded the turnips and parsnips, I'm not done with your soft pepper, with your sweet cream.
Whereupon I resolved to quit hemming and hawing, and get you a bowl of this soup. Because what could possibly possess a person to pine for turnips in March? See below.
Three Season Minestrone
adapted from Italian Country Cook Book, by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray
Vary the veg to suit your taste and crisper drawer. Bok choy can stand in for swiss chard. Double the spuds. Skip the green beans. Follow the general guidelines for timing—stems in step two, roots in step three, and tender veg just before the end—and you can substitute at will.
Rogers and Gray add half the cavolo nero at the beginning and half at the end, for a splash of bright, resilient green. I prefer mine added entirely at the beginning, where it goes army beige but turns silky and rich. Your choice. Either way, six pounds disappear. Seriously. Theirs is also a thick, standing-room-only soup, which contains only enough water to cover, and has half the beans mashed before adding. I leave my beans whole, and often increase the water, as I love the warming effects of hot broth. Also your call. Half-inch dice. I know. But it makes for the most pleasing spoonfuls, each a small party of sweet, tender veg. Truly.
This makes vats, gallons and gallons. I freeze a tall stack of portions, for later lunches, and get nervous when the pile runs low. Halves easily, if you want less.
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 medium carrots, chopped
3 medium onions, chopped
6 celery stalks, chopped
2 teaspoons' salt
2 heads of garlic, cloves peeled and minced
2 pounds swiss chard, leaves and stems separated, leaves slivered, stems chopped
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 bunch parsley, leaves and stems, chopped
4 1/2 pounds cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) or other hearty green, stripped of tough stems, leaves slivered
3-5 quarts water, vegetable stock, or chicken stock
8-16 ounces parmesan rinds
6-8 cups root vegetables (parsnips, potatoes, turnips, sweet potatoes, more carrots), peeled and cut into 1/2" dice
6 cups tender vegetables (green beans, zucchini, corn), prepped and cut into 1/2" dice
8-16 ounces kielbasa, cut into 1/2" dice (optional)
2 cups chickpeas, cooked
salt and freshly ground pepper
freshly grated parmesan, to top
Peel and roughly chop your carrots, onions and celery. In your biggest, heaviest pot, preferably a dutch oven, warm the olive oil until shimmery. Set flame to low, tip in your carrots, celery and onions, add two teaspoons' salt, and stir well to coat. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until soft and amber, 30-45 minutes. While this is happening, go about the rest of your prepping and chopping, working your way through the roots, leaves and such.
When your soffritto is one third its' former volume, slumped, and smelling wonderful, add the two heads' minced garlic, half the chopped parsley (stems and leaves), and the chopped chard stems. Stir well, let settle, then add tomatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced, 15-30 minutes.
Add half (or all, see note above) of swiss chard and cavolo nero leaves, the diced root vegetables, enough water or stock to cover, parmesan rinds, and diced kielbasa, if using. (At this point, I usually divide the soup over two large pots, so as not to crowd, and to allow for the vegetables still to come.) Bring to a boil, and let simmer, 30-45 minutes, or until the biggest root yields easily to knife point. Taste for salt—it will need plenty more, anywhere from 1-2 tablespoons. Add and taste, add and taste, until you are happy.
Now, finish off the soup with the final line-up: add the remaining greens, if you reserved any; cooked beans; plus any tender vegetables (green beans, zucchini, corn), and let simmer another 5-10 minutes, until tender. Taste for seasoning again—all the vegetables should be flavorful, each tasting distinctly of itself, and the broth bright and deeply savory. Adjust salt and pepper until this tastes true.
Serve immediately, topped with freshly grated parmesan and/or olive oil. And stash some away in the freezer for later. There are few things better to find in the deep freeze.